On Thursday, Feb 5th, 2015 community based organization MORE led a group of activists in blocking the entrance to the Pine Lawn Police Department. (Watch the video here.) Bassem Masri explains why Pine Lawn could be the worst police department in St. Louis.
Pine Lawn police are known in Saint Louis as the worst predator-criminal police department around. Their officers and officials have been implicated in everything from extortion to rape. Lt. Steven Blakney is accused of raping two women he met in a Saint Charles bar on or about November 5, 2014. One cop covering up for the next. They are a criminal organization that use their badges to further their racket.
In September of 2014, Pine Lawn mayor, Sylvester Caldwell, was charged with one felony count of interfering with commerce by extortion. Caldwell had authority over which towing companies Pine Pawn police would use. From December of 2013 through April 2014, he accepted cash payments from those companies in order to tow the cars of people being arrested by the police department. Caldwell’s actions show how the Pine Lawn police department use traffic violations to exploit the law for personal gain. Caldwell has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Every morning, on highway 70, one can observe 4-5 Pine Lawn police cars on each side of the highway preying on people on their way to work. That stretch of highway is a "travel safe" zone. Fines are doubled on this part of the highway and the speed limit is reduced from 60 to 55. So, cops will pull you over for any reason and give you whatever kind of ticket they can. Missouri system for issuing license plates is very difficult with strict guidelines that some people cannot afford. People get behind on tickets that are very expensive, sometimes totaling two thousand dollars. Their license is suspended then they are caught in a vicious cycle of debtor’s prison. They can and will lock up anyone at any time. The money coming in from fines motivates this predatory policy to continue. The City makes money from erroneous fines and Mayor Caldwell makes money from cash payments from the tow companies.
All day long on that stretch of highway 70, police are constantly harassing those they are supposed to protect and serve. Once a week, maybe two times a week, Pine Lawn police will set up sobriety checks in the middle of the municipality. Once, when I went through this check, I was detained and arrested. My own fault, my regular deal, driving without a license. However, in this sobriety check, no one’s sobriety was tested. Since predator cops ticket and harass everyone in St. Louis, most people have traffic warrants. This is not just limited to Pine Lawn. It happens in all of the municipalities. They check for warrants under the guise of sobriety checks and look for any reason to arrest people. Keeping money flowing to the tow yards then into the Mayor’s pocket.
In 2013, Pine Lawn had 23,457 outstanding warrants in a town of 3,275 people. That's not counting warrants that were paid off. That is a total of 7 warrants per person. While the mayor eats extravagantly, his constituents are being extorted. Not only extorted but the police try and fear monger the population into obedience. A tactic that has angered and frustrated residents has forced many into poverty.
February 5, 2015, Ferguson protesters shut down Pine Lawn court. Outside testimonies were given. One woman stated, "I spent two weeks inside a small cell with five other people all for traffic tickets. There was no restroom in the cell, and I was fed peanut butter and jelly three times a day". This is very alarming. These municipalities do not give time served after spending weeks in jail. One must still pay the fines in their entirety. Not only is this municipality breaking laws, but clearly violating constitutional and human rights. Debtors’ prison is very much unconstitutional, but this is also cruel and unusual punishment. If there are no toilets available in the cells, which means a human must beg an officer each time they want to use the restroom. What about hygiene? Both of those reasons should easily amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The woman who spoke in front of the court looked traumatized and I do not blame her. Because I went through that same ordeal more than once.
Ferguson protesters have assembled a list of demands for Pine Lawn that are non-negotiable.
We call on Pine Lawn judge Dean Plocher to immediately:
1. Eliminate all outstanding fines in their entirety and cancel warrants associated with those offenses.
2. Place a moratorium on bench warrants in municipal courts until significant changes are made.
We also call on St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger to:
1. Abolish the municipal courts.
2. Eliminate jail time as a possible consequence for non-violent municipal offenses.
3. Provide non-monetized options like time-banking to pay off fines.
This is what we demand from Pine Lawn as well as St. Louis County. This is just a start. It does not address the predatory nature of the police department. What we need is complete reform of that department by weeding out current cops and replacing them with new officers trained in preventing crime - not perpetrating it.